View Full Version : DM Help Cyclical Rise and Fall of Civilizations (Long)

Aron Times
2014-10-11, 06:19 AM
Edit: Posting this here because it's not really D&D 5e-specific; I'm asking for advice on how to run the world.

I am currently in the recruitment stage of a D&D 5e campaign which I pitched as Columbus's Voyage, Inverted. Basically, the Columbus of my campaign world was born and raised in America, and he is leading an expedition to the Europe to discover why it fell and went dark and how the same thing will be prevented in the New World. Here's the campaign's backstory.

Note: I'm using the names of the seven continents in real-world Earth for the sake of convenience, and to keep things from being too obvious from any of my players stumbling into this thread. The continents and empires are named differently in the actual game.

Over 3,000 years ago, there existed a legendary empire which we'll refer to as Fantasy Asia. Fantasy Asia reached the pinnacle of military, economic, and magical development and managed to unite and bring peace to an entire continent. It even managed to send explorers to the other continents and give them their names, which are still used in the present. About a thousand years after it was established, the outside world lost all contact with Fantasy Asia. Nothing came out of the empire continent, and no one is known to have entered and come back to tell the tale. Complicating matters was the Fantasy Great Wall, a series of impossibly-high walls that completely encircled the continent empire.

About a century after the fall of Fantasy Asia, the empire of Fantasy Europe was established by Fantasy Asian colonists. It, too, reached the heights of power, but after a thousand years, it fell to civil war and general anarchy due to a variety of natural and supernatural disasters, e.g. crop failures and famine due to the decline of agricultural magic that resulted in perfect yields, epidemics brought on by over-reliance on magical healing, etc. Due to the absence of a Fantasy Great Wall, the fall of Fantasy Europe was well-documented, though the inhabitants of other lands avoided the continent due to the violence.

About a century (are you seeing a pattern here?) after the fall of Fantasy Europe, the empire of Fantasy America was established. This is where the PCs and the Christopher Columbus analogue come from. It is the year 990, and the empire is fast reaching its Millennium. The Empress is concerned about the cycle repeating itself, and sponsored Columbus's voyage to the Old World to find out what threat, if any, the Empire will face in its thousand-year anniversary. The PCs are members of the expedition, each one handpicked by Columbus for their complementary skill sets.

I've decided that the reason why Asia and Europe fell is due to the overuse of magic. Specifically, the overuse of permanent magic items. I'm not talking about your typical +1 sword or bag of holding. I'm talking about magical civil engineering and public works, or as some people call it, magitech. However, the exact mechanics of the fall is what I need help with. Here's what I came up with:

1. The source of all magic is the Far Realm. Magic basically breaks the laws of physics by its very nature, and what plane of existence breaks reality more than the Far Realm? Too much magic concentrated in one area opens a rift to Cthulhuland, leading to a massive alien invasion. This is how Fantasy Asia fell, and why the Fantasy Great Wall exists; in its last days, its greatest mages erected the Great Wall not to keep the enemy out, but to keep the enemy trapped within.

2. Same as #1, but instead of physical creatures spilling forth from the Realm of Madness, it is the madness itself that spills forth. People went bat**** insane and ganked each other. This explains the anarchy and civil war in Fantasy Europe. It might also explain the Fantasy Great Wall around Fantasy Asia, an epic ritual that seals off the infected area since it was the best they could do.

3. Same as #2, but the rifts also warp the flesh. The alien invasion isn't; they're actually just mutated material plane denizens.

4. All of the above? Grimdark...

Regardless, I do have another concern. Over half my PCs have some spellcasting ability (a paladin, an arcane trickster, a warlock, and a possible ranger joining), how should their spellcasting affect or be affected by the Fantasy Europe rifts?

1. Spellcasting makes the rifts worse, causing more madness/mutations/aberrations, etc. Cue the horde of magic-hungry mutants and aberrations bum-rushing the first one unlucky enough to cast a cantrip. I was leaning towards this until I saw that the majority of applicants wanted to play full or partial spellcasters.

2. Spellcasting actually drains the rifts, allowing them to cast spells without expending spell slots and with enough spellcasting, allow an area to return to normal. Basically, permanent magic is the problem, not one-shot spells.

Now, there would probably be survivors, or rather, descendants of survivors in Fantasy Europe. I was wondering how they'd react to a party of mostly spellcasters wearing weird clothes and armor and wielding strange weapons:

1. BURN THE WITCH! The survivor societies have a spellcasting taboo due to misremembered tales about magic ending the world.

2. The expedition is hailed as gods and saviors of Fantasy Europe due to a prophecy about those who can heal the land (by draining the rifts) or maybe smite the unbelievers (by summoning more trouble from the rifts). Either way, the powerful survivor factions will do stupid things to prove their worth to the "gods," maybe even resulting in a civil war between those who believe and those who reject them as their gods.

3. Or both?

Thanks in advance for your replies. :smallcool:

2014-10-11, 02:30 PM
I've been playing with the idea of country-size sigils created via public works projects, in a setting where most psi power works via sigils and they're the only ways to make psi power into items (unless the item has a mind, of course). The nation creating the massive symbols "writes" them on the country using aqueducts, ditches, magical and mundane roads, lines of trees, et cetera. And they're doing so deliberately, using sigils known for their beneficial powers.

I think it was in "American Gods" that I read about an agent of evil subtly subverting the shape of a highway to make it into a sigil of chaos and pain. Combine these ideas ...

... And maybe Fantasy Asia was making their grand, huge, continent-spanning magitech under the growing influence of Far Realm entities, being prevented from realizing that the different parts would add together into a sigil of Opening The Way. Then the monsters, madness and mutation could come through without anything to stop them. I do prefer option 4 (all of the above) for the nature of the invasion.

As far as Europeans' reactions go, I always prefer to present normal people as short-sighted and lacking in much sense of history, since that's the way American humans are IRL. :smalltongue: Plus, ya know, having just been through a few centuries of Dark Age, the folks don't have much left in the way of libraries and centers of learning. So if I were running it, few Europeans would react to the Americans as anything other than people in funny clothes. There would be patches of "kill the magic-wielders!" and "save us save us!" but the masses wouldn't have a clue.

2014-10-11, 02:37 PM
I'd personally go with the insanity option, not the phsyical Old Ones spilling forth. That's just too much to work with I feel, it also means that things can look normal and really not be anywhere approaching normal. It also allow you to have crazy old one worshipping cults that do manange to pull lesser beings through into the world, without worrying about having to have the creatures everywhere.

Also, explains the civil wars and violence and each group of people becomes more bat-crazy without necessarily becoming less aware or intelligent. Military leaders can be completely competent, but convinced their superiors are secretly plotting to blow up the world.

2014-10-11, 06:15 PM
I'm thinking you may actually be able to make thing even more grimdark by not using the old ones and just sticking with the insanity.

Keep it human. Keep it eerily close to the players. Meticulously track how many spells they cast and of which level. Introduce a NPC spellcaster who joins the party and keeps spamming spells. And then... Will saves.

If you want to go really really grimdark from there on, have them start tearing away their own flesh in a one-round fit of madness, trying to gouge their eyes out or alternatively, their allies'.

"Stammering whispers force their way out of your mouth as you grab your allies throat and sink your nails into his skin. 'The flesh is evil... The flesh is evil...'"

2014-10-14, 02:36 PM

And Christopher should be as douchey as his real life counterpart, all taking advantage of the population and perpetrating some genocide and some such so the PC can stop him or, God forbide, join him.

I've been playing with the idea of country-size sigils created via public works projects, in a setting where most psi power works via sigils and they're the only ways to make psi power into items (unless the item has a mind, of course). The nation creating the massive symbols "writes" them on the country using aqueducts, ditches, magical and mundane roads, lines of trees, et cetera. And they're doing so deliberately, using sigils known for their beneficial powers.

I think it was in "American Gods" that I read about an agent of evil subtly subverting the shape of a highway to make it into a sigil of chaos and pain. Combine these ideas ...
This sounds very Full Metal Alchemist. Except in that case it was never supposed to be good, just turn the man behind the curtains into God...

2014-10-14, 04:06 PM
Your first list contained within it the suggestion of a series—the first fall was due to a massive-scale invasion, the second due to insidious influences on the mind, and the third will be due to more combatable physical dangers. If you keep all three explanations in and make them sequential, one gets the impression that both the height and fall that magic brings is shrinking over time. Perhaps this is due to some countermeasure taken by the Fantasy Asian mages in their last moments, shrinking the influence of magic over time. Perhaps adapting this countermeasure could avert disaster this time, but at the cost of preventing future magic use...

2014-10-15, 12:45 PM
This is a great setting idea, I love the concept!
As for how it interacts with their magic, what about if you go the Laundry route and have it become increasingly easy to cast increasingly powerful spells? This could also be tied in to the madness concept - the better you understand the Far Realm, the more you can bend the laws of magic. This would explain the rapid development of the characters and why they can cast archmage-level spells after a few years of adventuring, as well as justifying a finale full of magical fireworks as mages become increasingly unhinged and potent. There could also be issues with people gaining power they're not used to - child prodigies becoming exceptionally dangerous, for instance, if their magic develops faster than their self-control.

Aron Times
2014-10-16, 12:42 AM
Lots of good ideas in this thread. Thanks, everyone!

I've decided not to overthink the campaign details and instead leave some of the world building up to my players. Basically, their random speculations and conclusions about what is going on may or may become canon. I still plan on introducing the magical rifts some time after the game starts, but for now, it will be more of a diplomacy and exploration game.

One aspect of the world I've added is that it relies heavily on physical labor, be it human, animal, or supernatural labor. The ship the party is on is similar to an elemental galleon from Eberron, in that it is propelled by water elementals, or rather, pulled by water elementals like a landbound carriage is pulled by horses. The elementals are controlled by either a magic item or an elaborate ritual that provides the appropriate spiritual energy or faith to appease the elemental spirits. Basically, Prayer-Powered Propulsion.

Permanent, low-maintenance magical works require a rift to the Far Realm. Basically, the ancients found an easier way of powering their devices, one that doesn't require regular rituals, but it backfired because it was actually powered by Cthulhu. The New World is safe unless someone discovers this "new" magical engineering or otherwise brings it back from the old World.

Oooh, I need to trademark that term! Prayer-Powered Propulsion...

2014-11-27, 04:03 AM
Well as this is a while since the thread was last used, you may well have decided what to do, but I'll through in my 2 cents worth as well.
- Summoning/madness combo along the lines of Full metal Alchemist backstory, where an extremely powerful magic user (demi-god/Cthulu/Daemon Lord or something else) revealed the use of magic to fantasy Asia (Maybe stealing it from the gods like Prometheus and Fire) but then manipulated them over time To create a giant summoning sigil out of their country, the great wall being the outer edge of said sigil. It summoned some form of Gribbly beasties and fantasy asia fell, but maybe they managed to damage the details of the sigil before they all perished so while the land within said sigil is a plane of chaos and terror, the monsters cannot leave it but can influence the thoughts of others outside, so they tried to get fantasy europe to do the same and due to the distance it didnt work out perfectly so while europe fell they didnt get as many big nasties, and now america is the next continent on the list the gribblies are trying to use to get them out. Have the millennium be some sort of Star/plane/Moon etc. alignment, maybe 1111 is their magic number and the whole century roughly + millenium works out as 1111 each time. Have someone at high court be under the control of said beasties. You could make it more dark/nuanced with the controlled people truly believing they are doing good and need to harness more pwoer to save the kingdom etc.

2014-11-27, 04:30 AM
A fun option could be one of scarcity - magic got used so much that the energy drain on magic energy exceeded the energy generation rate. Impressive magic items just kept getting produced, the drain just kept getting worse, and eventually the civilization was running on fumes - including all the things that had been established that were keeping it running. Great systems of irrigation ditches and aqueducts powered by magical springs that produced the water for them dried up*. Temperature controls that had allowed colonization of inhospitable areas failed, and the great obelisks radiating heat went cold. Widespread famine broke social order, those from the borders had to flee to the centers of civilization and made it worse, violence broke out. Attempts were made to stem the tide by digging deep into the worse and more dangerous parts of the far realm for their power, sometimes this worked, sometimes it caused catastrophes**.

*These should also be monumental architecture. Think less in terms of natural springs and more in terms of ridiculously large fountains.

**The area around Chernobyl is horribly irradiated, reclaimed by nature, and has all sorts of weird mutations. Just think of what a fantasy equivalent could be - natural creatures infused with the far realm, spreading outward, attuned to the use of magic, around a dead zone where the air is still infused with the direct power of the far realm, at the center of which is a great gloomy spire in decay, adorned with numerous magical glyphs.